LVIV, Ukraine —
As a trickle of civilians from the brutalized city of Mariupol headed to safety Tuesday, Russian forces pressed their assault on Ukraine’s eastern heartland, striking at targets across a region that U.S. officials warn is under threat of annexation by Moscow.
The Ukrainian military said Tuesday that 12 attacks were repelled overnight in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two districts that make up the eastern industrial Donbas area coveted by Russia. Officials also reported new shelling in Izium and in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has undergone some of the most vicious assault since the war began Feb. 24. The attacks could not be independently verified.
At least 100 civilians have been evacuated from their shelter at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol since Saturday, but no sooner had one evacuation been completed than Russian forces shelled and then began storming the massive plant where the last Ukrainian fighters in the besieged port city — and many civilians — were holed up, according to Ukrainian officials.
Ukrainian media quoted a commander at the Azovstal factory as saying that Russian forces were bombing overnight and “now the occupiers are trying to break into the plant.”
Just hours earlier, dozens of exhausted residents of Mariupol were en route to the interior city of Zaporizhzhia after their rescue from the steelworks where they had taken shelter, along with local fighters. .
Under the auspices of the United Nations and the International Red Cross, the escapees set out in buses and ambulances for Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles northwest, where aid workers await.
“Things are moving,” said Dorit Nitzan, the World Health Organization’s incident manager for Ukraine, speaking to reporters in Geneva by video. “We know that they are on their way.”
Some evacuees were also reportedly moved to a village under the control of Moscow-backed separatists. The Russian state news agency Tass has said that more than 1 million people from war-torn areas of Ukraine have been taken to Russia in the last nine weeks; Ukraine has alleged that at least some of those transfers have been forced, which Moscow denies.
“It is no coincidence that the Russian occupiers are creating so-called ‘filtration camps’ on Ukrainian land through which thousands of our Ukrainian citizens are passing,” President Volodymyr Zelensky declared in his nightly video address, “where our people are killed, tortured and raped. It is no coincidence that the occupiers capture civilians and take them hostage or deport them as free labor.”
Zelensky said evacuation attempts would continue Tuesday in Mariupol, as well as in Berdyansk, Tokmak and Vasylivka, three towns between Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered an address Tuesday to the Ukrainian parliament by video from London, during which he commended the country’s resistance to the Russian invasion as “Ukraine’s finest hour,” in an echo of Winston Churchill during World War II.
“I have one message for you today: Ukraine will win,” Johnson said. “Ukraine will be free.”
Johnson announced a $375-million package of new military aid to supplement assistance to Kyiv that has already included missiles and missile launchers. The new package will include electronic equipment and night-vision devices.
“Though your soldiers were always outnumbered … they fought with the courage and the energy of lions, and you’ve beaten them back from Kyiv,” Johnson added. “You have exploded the myth of Putin’s invincibility, and you’ve written one of the most glorious chapters in military history and in the life of your country. …
“You’ve proved the old saying: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
U.S. and British military analysts say Russia’s advances are sluggish because of failures in strategic planning and operational execution. In an assessment released Tuesday, the British Defense Ministry estimated that one-fourth of Russia’s forces in Ukraine have been rendered “combat ineffective.” While saying he could not confirm the quantity, a senior U.S. Defense official described the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine as “anemic.”
The Ukrainian military claimed that Russian artillery hit a school compound in the region near Zaporizhzhia, killing two people.
With Moscow concentrating its efforts on the Donbas, there were increasing indications that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to annex the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway enclaves, U.S. officials said. The region is home to a significant Russian-speaking population, and pro-Moscow separatists have declared secessionist republics there that Russia has recognized but virtually no other country has.
Putin is likely do the same with the Kherson region in the south, near the port city of Odesa, by arranging the creation of a self-declared Kherson People’s Republic, U.S. officials said. Those moves would follow the pattern of Putin’s steps after he occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.
“We have to act urgently,” Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters in Washington.
He said the illegal annexations could happen as early as mid-May through a series of “sham referenda” made to look as if residents were voting for the measure. Russian authorities would impose puppet local officials, Russian-language school curriculum and even the use of rubles.
King reported from Lviv, Wilkinson from Washington and Chu from London.